Fennec Beta 1 review: The future of mobile browsing is here

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Chicago (IL) – Although
mobile Firefox, dubbed Fennec, has just entered into its first beta, we
can already tell it is set to alter the mobile browsing landscape in a
big way — probably bigger than how Firefox progressed browsing
on our
desktop computers. The new beta enhances bookmark management and brings
notable speed improvements — thanks to TraceMonkey. Plugins are also enabled, making Flash
video, PDFs and other plugin-based web content easily viewable. The
support for Mozilla’s add-ons platform alone puts Fennec far ahead of other
mobile browsers, enabling a personalized browsing environment
just as with desktop Firefox.

MOBILE FIREFOX SLIDESHOWS:

Features walkthrough
(13 pictures)

Add-ons, themes and plugins
(14 pictures)


After eleven development
milestone, Mozilla released the first official beta of mobile Firefox, dubbed Fennec. The good news is that Fennec Beta 1 remains focused on
speed optimizations: The browser starts faster than before, zooms and
pans around pages smoother. It also has a friendlier settings UI, an
improved title bar with access to multiple search engines and bookmark
folders. Fennec Beta 1 also has nicer features from previous
releases, like password and download managers, themes support,
geolocation APIs, tabbed browsing with thumbnails and clean UI
optimized for pages by moving tabs and controls to vertically aligned
columns outside screen boundaries, allowing you to reveal them with
swipe gesture. The bad news is, you don’t get to run Fennec on your
iPhone — thanks to Apple’s policies.

Although Apple approved
several third-party browsers into its App Store, these are all
WebKit-based. Their App Store rules prohibit apps from using frameworks
other than those provided in the official iPhone SDK. And since Fennec packs
quite a few non-Apple-approved technologies, for example it’s built on
the Gecko rendering engine and XUL-based add-ons platform like desktop
Firefox coupled to its TraceMonkey
Javascript engine, Apple says “NO” to the competition.

On a brighter note, you can run
Fennec Beta 1 natively on Maemo-powered Nokia N8xx Internet tablets.
Mozilla said version 1.0 will run on a range of
mobile devices powered by Windows Mobile (HTC Touch Pro), Symbian
(Nokia N95) and
Linux — effectively giving Fennec access to two thirds of the mobile
market. There are also test versions for Windows, Mac OS X and Linux
desktop that mimic the mobile environment. There will be at least two more
betas and one release candidate before Fennec ships sometime in 2009.
Here’s what you can expect from this first official beta release.


CLEAN USER INTERFACE
Mobile Firefox maximizes screen real estate for viewing pages by moving all controls to vertically aligned columns outside screen boundaries. Swipe left to reveal tabs with thumbnails, right for other browsing options.
[Click here for slideshow]


Code base: Optimized for speed

As
the browser enters beta testing, developers are focusing on performance. As such, Beta 1 packs substantial optimizations compared with its previous alpha
releases. Mozilla claims that optimizations to Fennec’s front-end code,
combined with platform tweaks, make Beta 1 boot and render pages faster
while keeping the UI more responsive — all of which is true. You’ll also
notice smoother page zooming and panning.

Mozilla has pledged to keep
identifying performance hotspots and tweak the underlying code until the final
version comes out — sometime later this year.

TraceMonkey: Online

Mozilla
had previously introduced an optimized Javascript engine, dubbed TraceMonkey, into
full view with Firefox 3.1. This boosted the speed of Javascript-based sites
like Gmail and Facebook. Instead of parsing, analyzing and then
executing the natural language-based Javascript code line by line (old
school way), code which looks like this:

The new TraceMonkey engine first turns Javascript commands into
byte-codes, which are an intermediary representation suitable for much faster
execution. It’s like a run-time compile. It converts the text-based, human-readable Javascript source code into a machine-readable binary program.

The arrival of TraceMonkey in Fennec Beta 1 is a big
step forward that will hopefully trigger a new speed race that will benefit consumers greatly — like when
optimized Javascript engines in desktop Safari and Firefox ignited speed race on your desktop. Oh, the excitement!

Nevertheless,
don’t expect TraceMonkey in Fennec to automagically run complex sites
the way desktop Firefox does. Due to the constrained mobile CPU and GPU resources, it may struggle with even moderately complex pages.
Nevertheless, the inclusion of the TraceMonkey platform into Fennec shows Mozilla’s devotion to speeding up mobile apps, and is a
step in right direction that already enables more responsive and efficient
mobile browsing. It’s also strategic move that ensure Fennec’s
competitiveness in mid- and long-term, raising the ladder in terms of
what mobile browser should be.

Read on the next page:Plugins, Bookmarks management, Extensions

Plugins: Enabled, and bookmarks get folders

Although previous Fennec alpha releases had a Plugins
section in the settings pane, the functionality was disabled.
Fennec Beta 1 now enables plugins, allowing you to watch
Flash-encoded videos, render PDF documents and view other content that
needs common plugins.

The alpha’s limited bookmark handling is also enhanced with bookmark folders
to help manage dozens of favorite sites on a small screen. In
addition, a user can scroll through a new bookmarks list and other preference
panes with a flick of a finger. This bookmark enhancements and manager, combined with syncing via the Weave extension (see below) are some of the stronger Fennec features.


STAR A SITE
Tap a star to bookmark a site. File it in a folder and apply tags. Fennec-compatible Weave extensions keeps your tabs, bookmarks and Awesome-bar settings synced across desktop and mobile, all the time.
[Click for slideshow]


Extensions: Fennec’s ace

Fennec
runs Mozilla’s powerful extension platform — based on the XML language
called XUL (pronounced zool). The idea is this: Allow users to run the same add-ons across
desktop and mobile versions of Firefox. It’s a one stop shop for add-on needs.

Because both Firefox versions share the
same add-ons platform, developers need only make minimal changes to
migrate add-ons from desktop to mobile Firefox. Programmers typically keep the base
code and logic intact, adding only small portions which address the mobile device’s smaller screen size.

At the time of this writing, a dedicated Fennec section
on Mozilla’s add-ons site featured several working and experimental
extensions with lots more to come as we’re nearing the final release.
Perhaps the best way to illustrate the significance of add-ons in Fennec is
to highlight two that are awesome: 1) Bookmark syncing and 2) gesture
interface.


WHY YOU’LL LOVE FENNEC: EXTENSIONS
Fennec’s killer feature is the same add-ons platform that also powers desktop Firefox, enabling you to keep the same browsing environments on both your desktop and mobile browser.
[Click for slideshow]


Fennec does not feature cloud syncing of bookmarks out-of-the-box. Thanks to the Mozilla Labs team, who developed a Fennec-friendly version of its desktop Weave add-on (see an in-depth review here),
you can now keep bookmarks in perfect sync across mobile and desktop
Firefox all the time, though Weave does more — it also syncs
your
desktop’s tabs and Awesome-bar contents as well. Weave
supports other browser content that will be enabled in future versions
and its open architecture allows add-on makers to register their data
types for syncing, opening previously unheard of capabilities for
keeping your Internet life in perfect sync at home or on-the-go.

Felipe Gomes’
gestures add-on boosts Fennec’s already efficient navigation by enabling
you to draw familiar symbols that invoke common actions. For example, a
circle creates a new tab, an “x” symbol closes it, home-shaped symbol takes
you to preset home page, star bookmarks a page, “U” brings the bookmark
manager up, etc.

My personal favorite: draw a circle counter-clockwise to
display a semi-transparent pie menu with the last four used options. This,
and many other capabilities added through extensions, wouldn’t have
been possible if Mozilla hadn’t ported its extensions engine to Fennec.

Read on the next page:Awesome bar, Final thoughts EXTRA: Videos and presentations

Awesome bar: Now even more awesome

One
of Fennec’s best tricks is a clever title bar that acts as both a URL and
search box. Built on desktop Firefox’s Awesome bar, it saves space
without compromising functionality. Simply tap on the title bar and up
pops an auto-populated list of places you go to frequently (or have been to
recently).

As you start typing a URL or search term, filtered matching
results from your history (including past search queries) appear for easy selection. Convenient search engine icons are positioned at the bottom to give you quick
access to multiple search engines. You will also be able to add search
engines and scroll horizontally by finger-dragging to reach icons
outside screen boundaries.


CLEVER TITLE BAR
The title bar acts as both a URL and search box. Based on desktop Firefox’s Awesome bar technology, it brings matching history items as you start typing. Icons line the bottom and provide quick access to multiple search engines that you can customize.
[Click for slideshow]


Conclusion: Fennec, the browser you’ll want to use

The
fact that developers have already fixed a number of issues for the next beta release, and
plan to continue tweaking performance until the final release, is very encouraging to say the least.

Optimizing code for speed — striking a perfect balance between features
and bloat — is paramount if Mozilla is to deliver an enjoyable experience
and competitive performance on mobile platforms. The open source
organization also confirmed that polishing the
UI will be in its focus for the next beta release. More precisely, the
extension manager will get a face lift
and some of the usability issues people
have reported will be fixed.

Although Fennec has just officially reached the first beta, it’s already shaping into a stellar mobile browser that
out-innovates mobile Safari in terms of usability and a list of rich features
it brings to the table. We can’t wait the final 1.0 release and
frankly — it’s a shame we won’t be able to run it on Apple’s iPhone.


FENNEC BETA 1: FEATURES WALTHROUGH
Fennec User Experience Chief, Madhava Enros, demos key Fennec features.

[No video? Watch on Vimeo!]


FENNEC EXTENSIONS: GESTURES-BASED NAVIGATION ENHANCEMENTS
Developer Felipe Gomes demos gestures add-on that enhances already efficient Fennec
navigation by enabling user to draw familiar symbols that invoke common actions.

[No video? Watch on Vimeo!]

To test the add-on you just need to pull the repository from fennec-gestures
and put it inside your extensions folder in your profile. The tracking bug for the
Gesture module is here. Opinions and suggestions are definitely welcome.

FENNEC UI CONCEPTS

Walkthrough of Fennec user interface designs. While not everything you see here
will necessarily end up in the shipping version of Fennec, the presentation gives
you a comprehensive overview of the philosophy that drives developers to focus on
functional yet minimalistic user interface.


[No slides? Watch on Slideshare.net!]


Check out our complete coverage of mobile Firefox:

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